Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

I’m a First-Generation American. Here’s What Helped Me Make It to College

Three ways to help immigrant and first-generation students succeed
By Roni Lezama — January 11, 2021 4 min read
Supportive hand holds up a student who is reaching for a star

My father is an immigrant from Mexico who decided to sacrifice his home to give me a better life. He grew up with the notion that the United States had one of the best education systems in the world and he saw that education as my ticket to participate in the pursuit of happiness.

When he moved to America, he chose Flushing, Queens, in New York City—which this year became an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis—because the public elementary school was highly regarded for its academics and safety. But navigating the public school system was extremely difficult, marked with constant reminders that the system was not designed for students like me. These difficulties and inequities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and will continue to impact students if they remain unaddressed.

My father always lived with the fear that if people found out I was the son of a Mexican immigrant, I would be ostracized in the classroom. From the first day of elementary school, he prayed that no one would bother me for being Mexican American, and that I would learn English quickly so I could defend against attacks on my identity. I have gone through all my academic career fighting the stereotypes that Mexicans are all “lazy” and “undocumented.”

I have experienced an interesting duality as a Mexican American, one that has played a formative role in my education and development. I have two languages, two countries, two identities. I learn in English but live in Spanish. I am Mexican at home but American at school.

I first became aware of this code-switching in middle school. The ways I interacted with my white, wealthy peers were far different from with my Latinx friends. I understood that English held more power than Spanish. Many people associate an accent or different regional variants of English to be unsophisticated, so I worked to be perceived as “articulate” and “well-spoken” at my local elementary and middle schools. In fact, it was my attention to coming across as “articulate” that helped me get into the high school that I attended.

I wanted to attend a high-achieving high school, but I did not perform well on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and therefore failed to be admitted into one of New York City’s specialized high schools. But the principal of Millennium High School, a selective public high school in Manhattan, offered me a spot—and gave me a shot. Principal Colin McEvoy saw more than the student who failed to get into a SHSAT school. He saw a well-spoken kid who was determined to find a school that would have the resources to achieve his goal of graduating and going to college. My father had sacrificed everything so I could go to college, and I saw Millennium as the means to get there.

Not every student can have the same opportunity I did, but every school community and educator can take certain steps to support students who feel at odds within a system that was not designed for them. Here are three steps that will help students like me:

1. Play an active role in their students’ lives outside of academics. While this is important during “normal” times, it is even more important now during the global pandemic when students are worried about their family, cut off from friends, and unsure what the future holds. Each student should be assigned a teacher who also serves as adviser, an additional adult figure in their life to help guide and assist them—even if this is done virtually. At Millennium, each student in the beginning of the high school experience is assigned an adviser and meets in advisory class three days a week to complete college-preparatory activities and check in with their adviser about academics and their personal life.

2. Acknowledge how political developments may affect students. Schools should provide students who may be affected by a policy decision with the tools to protect their education. I have many friends who have been affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and had to go through the complex process of ensuring they could study in the country without their parents. This June, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind DACA, but immigrants’ fight for protection under the law is far from over. It is important for teachers to understand how politics can impact the well-being of students—and how the fear of those impacts often take a toll on students’ academics.

3. Offer guidance on how to apply to college and options aside from college. My former high school requires every student to meet with the college guidance counselor at least twice, once each in their junior and senior years. As the first in my family to apply to college, these meetings were essential for me to figure out the application process, as well as for navigating financial aid and scholarships. It was only with this guidance that I applied for a Posse Foundation scholarship and earned a full scholarship to Middlebury College—opportunities that I would not have even known about otherwise.

As the COVID-19 vaccine gets rolled out more widely, there remain a lot of unknowns in higher education and in many families’ financial futures. Educators can help students explore alternate opportunities during this difficult time, including community college, internships, apprenticeships, gap years, or service-learning options.

Students of marginalized communities are both fighters and academics. Going through the American education system is difficult, and there are active ways that schools and educators can help their students navigate it. This is not a matter of doing the work for the students but acknowledging that there are several challenges present in students’ lives—challenges that may be exacerbated during a pandemic—and helping them navigate them.

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